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Study: Pandemics spread in much the same way as invasive insects

The tiger mosquito embodies the link between invasive species and infectious disease, further study of which researchers say could help to better understand and prevent future pandemics. Photo by Pixabay/CC
The tiger mosquito embodies the link between invasive species and infectious disease, further study of which researchers say could help to better understand and prevent future pandemics. Photo by Pixabay/CC

May 19 (UPI) -- The authors of a new paper are calling for greater collaboration between scientists studying invasive species and researchers investigating infectious disease outbreaks.

According to the study, published Wednesday in the journal BioScience, the emergence and spread of both harmful pathogens and invasive species follow similar patterns.

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After all, researchers say, they're both biological invasions.

"Human infectious agents that rapidly increase in incidence and geographic area can be viewed as a biological invasion but have rarely been treated as such," study co-author Alison Dunn told UPI in an email.

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"By looking at infectious disease in this way, we can learn much about the processes of biological invasions and of infectious disease spread -- and explore integrated ways to control them," said Dunn, a professor of ecology at the University of Leeds.

By linking the study of threats posed by invasive species and emergent pathogens, the researchers hope to inspire a more cohesive public policy approach to the problem of biological invasion.

The connection between invasive species and infectious disease, researchers say, is more than academic.

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Invasive species are often carriers of infectious disease. Additionally, the ecological damages caused by invasive species can increase the outbreak risk for zoonotic diseases, or diseases that jump between animal species.

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The spread of both invasive species and infectious disease are dictated by human behaviors, and both can have significant health, economic and social impacts, according to researchers.

For example, the tiger mosquito, which originated in Southeast Asia, now transmits dengue fever, yellow fever, West Nile virus, and chikungunya on all of the planet's inhabited continents.

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"Public health and invasion biology must both deliver policies and mechanisms to eradicate, reduce or manage biological risks, yet these risks are addressed by quite different mechanisms and conventions," Dunn said.

"We call for a One Biosecurity approach that transcends the traditional boundar­ies of human health and the environment to reduce the risks of biological invasions and of infectious diseases," she said.

According to Dunn and her research partners, a lot of work has been dedicated to identifying the ways invasive species are introduced to new regions, as well as the ways these invaders colonize new territory, called secondary spread.

The authors of the new paper suggest scientists take a similar investigative approach to emergent pathogens and infectious diseases.

"We also need to understand the key routes of long distance pathogen spread -- introduction to a new country -- and subsequent short distance spread through the community," Dunn said.

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"For example, COVID-19 has been introduced across the globe as a result of human transport, travel and trade, and then spread within communities causing massive health and social impacts," she said.

Like so many other fields of study, the researchers also suggest any and all investigations of biological invasions must consider the impacts of climate change.

"Climate change means that many damaging invasive species and pathogens may be able to survive in new regions," said Dunn. "We need to understand how climate change will drive the spread and impact of invasive species as well as existing and novel diseases."

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